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The Legend of Petrie’s Head: An Artist’s Response

By Debbie J Challis, on 16 October 2013

10 terracotta heads

‘Heads of Colour’: Petrie 2013 by Michal BarOr

Shortly after blogging my response to the ‘legends’ around the head of archaeologist Flinders Petrie, artist Michal BarOr has used these legends, the head itself and Petrie’s ideas about measuring heads , skulls and faces for race ategorising in a work for the display New Sensations.  New Sensations is part of Frieze Art Week and on display in Victoria House on Bloomsbury Square until tomorrow.


Measuring objects from the Galton Collection,

‘Heads of Colour’: Petrie (2013), Michal BarOr

Michal had researched here at the Petrie Museum and Galton Collections as well as at the Palestinian Exploration Fund in order to follow the ‘division’ of Petrie’s Body between Jerusalem from his head, which is in the Royal College of Surgeons. What comes across in the exhibition is the focus on the face with terracotta heads in the collection of the Petrie Museum on one wall and the tools used to measure the features of the face – hair, eyes and shape from the Galton Collection – along the other.

The exhibition finishes with print of Petrie’s head as it is now (photograph from an unknown year) in a negative print format with text about the head below. Michal writes:

‘They say the head was lost for almost forty years or maybe less. No one knows how it got here.’

Except, as Michal knows, that is not exactly true. The different stories about whether the head was damaged in the blitz, despite still being in Jersalem, or how it got here – hat box,

Exhibit from 'Heads of Colour' by Michal BarOr

‘Heads of Colour’: Petrie 2013, Michal BarOr

crate or suitcase – contribute to the legend and so to the art.  And so the head becomes analysed and a spectacle in a contemporary art show.

One Response to “The Legend of Petrie’s Head: An Artist’s Response”

  • 1
    Janice Taverne wrote on 6 October 2014:

    I can vouch for it being in Jerusalem from spring 1944 till May 1945. Below is an email I sent to Rachael Sparks regarding a memory I had as a child in Jerusalem when my father, Dr RSF Hennessey, was Deputy Director of Medical Services for Palestine.

    To Rachael Sparks
    I called in at your institute today but was told you are away and that I should email you.
    I watched the BBC programme about Flinders Petrie with interest, especially as I have a post-script for you:
    My father was a pathologist in the Colonial Service in Uganda who was appointed Deputy Director of Medical Services in Palestine in 1944 in the war, when I was a child, and we all went from Uganda (down the Nile and across from Suez) to live in Jerusalem. He told us that in his office there was a container under his desk with a head in it, and when we enquired whose and why he told us that it was that of a man called Flinders Petrie. My father used to come home for lunch and joke about it and tell us that it was still there, and I suppose it must have stayed there till the war ended. We finally left Jerusalem for England in May 1945, between VE Day and VJ Day. I don’t know what happened to it then…….

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